Exercise Too Much? When Compulsive Exercise Becomes an Eating Disorder

Exercise is a necessary part of any healthy lifestyle, there’s no doubt about that. But could too much be a bad thing? When a person is constantly striving to attain what they consider to be the perfect body, they can soon find themselves with an unhealthy obsession. Working toward a healthy weight is one thing, but ignoring potential health risks is quite another. If you think you may be guilty of working out too much, it’s worth learning a bit more about compulsive exercise.

There are multiple terms for the condition

Exhausted man lying on the ground after a brutal CrossFit workout | Source: iStock

Compulsive exercise can put a person’s health at risk | iStock.com

If you were to Google “compulsive exercising” or a related term, you’d discover there’s more than just one way to describe an unhealthy obsession with working out. According to Eating Disorder Hope, compulsive exercise can be called hypergymnasia, exercise bulimia, and anorexia athletic. If that weren’t confusing enough, there’s not really a clear-cut definition of what too much really is. Knowing when you, or someone else, has crossed the line is pretty tricky. If food choices start to become more restrictive, then it’s time to worry. This brings us to our next point.

Compulsive exercise goes hand in hand with eating disorders

Woman Adjusting Weight Scale

Woman weighing herself on an adjustable scale | iStock.com

With an abundance of information out there on eating disorders, it can be difficult to differentiate one from another. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Eating disorders are illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become obsessed with food and their body weight.” That being said, a person may feel the need to compulsively exercise in an effort to reach an unhealthy, unattainable weight. In fact, compulsive exercise is one way some people with eating disorders try to offset the calories they consume, according to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

The three main types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) says eating disorders affect several million people at any given time, and are often accompanied by at least one other psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety, panic, and/or obsessive compulsive disorder. The trouble with compulsive exercising, though, is that it’s not currently in the DSM-5, though it is widely recognized. Eating Disorders Online notes compulsive exercise is most common among high-level athletes, but it can strike anyone.

There are serious consequences

While compulsive exercising alone may not meet the criteria to be classified as an eating disorder, it does contribute to health problems. The National Eating Disorders Association provides a laundry list of possible health consequences, including the reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats, loss of muscle, and even death. If your workouts have taken over your life, it’s time to consider reaching out for some help.

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